AUDIO BY ARTISTS FESTIVAL (1984)
Five Halifax/Dartmouth Nova Scotia sites, 23 February - 11 March 1984
[First published in Prince Edward Island's art journal Arts Atlantic, number 20, Summer,1984, 26-27.]
Five Halifax/Dartmouth locations were involved, along with dozens of artists, composers, and performers. Audio works of every description were included. Works by academic, experimental musicians like Steve Tittle, visual artists with a special interest in sound like Andy James, dancers (included in Paul Miller's performance), art school teachers like Bruce Barber, and audio neophytes (like those trained especially for this show at the Centre for Art Tapes) were collected and generously distributed across the early months of 1984.
This was not an in-house Nova Scotia College Art & Design event, nor was it confined to Halifax's two Canada Council-sponsored spaces, Eye Level Gallery and the Centre for Art Tapes, Dalhousie University, Halifax's Culture, Recreation and Fitness auditorium, and even a tavern in downtown Dartmouth hosted events.
Most publicity holes were plugged; everyone in Halifax with an inclination toward innovative audio work was informed. Co-operation from Dalhousie University's CKDU radio station pulled in viewers/listeners from the student community, while posters all over Halifax kept the rest of us informed.
The show was broadly conceived and consistently cut across audience expectations. No attempt was made to reify the positions of visual artists, performers or musicians. The aim was to integrate skills and sensibilities. The stress was on the relationship between sound and visual media but, to their credit, the organizers did not attempt to arrange performances according to ideas about consistency of medium or message.
For example, Paul Miller's symbolist multi-media event was performed in the same space and on the same evening as Gordon Monahan's witty and tight routine.
Monahan lives in Toronto and was trained at Mount Allison University, a school that is not yet very well known for innovative audio works. He encouraged listeners to enjoy the acoustical properties of his works, which included Jimi Hendrix-like guitar manipulations, audio tape "pulling", and a unique "speaker swinging event.
The speaker swinging event was very strong. Monahan positioned two volunteers dressed in black on either side of a large room. Each of them held a speaker attached to a thick cord of nylon and wire. As they swung the speakers over their heads, oscillator sounds gradually built resonances against the room's elements: the people, chairs, walls and windows modified a zone of sound which reminded one of a Benedictine choir or the wind-swept campus at Mount Allison.
As he played with the sound board, Monahan became one of three centres of attention in the piece. His speaker-swinging assistants became the other two pivots for the work. I became curious as to how long the performance would last: would it stop when one of the assistants collapsed in exhaustion? For many viewers a resonance for the work grew around David Craig and Catherine Quinn, respective directors of Eye Level Gallery and the Centre for Art Tapes - Monahan's volunteers. Here was a graphic portrayal of the people who facilitate art-making, i.e. two art gallery directors, becoming physically exhausted in the course of their duties.
Paul Miller's performance Before the First Snow was about the artist's personal transition from rural to urban life. It used video, 8 mm film, prerecorded sound, improvisational dance and live cello. The use of media harked back to experimenters like Nam June Paik and Charlotte Mooreman. I could not help but frame Miller's use of cello in a multi-media work except in reference to Mooreman's work. Perhaps that is a superficial connection. More important might be the cello's capacity at generating a subdued and reflective atmosphere. Unlike Monahan, who directed the audience in a verbal preface, Miller put his piece on a level of interpretation and interaction closer to traditional theatre: stage hands worked props and media while the audience worked at putting the story together. In contrast to Monahan's lesson in acoustics ( very good one at that) Miller seemed to work in a realm of fiction. He gave us a dispirited slice of life, full of solemn music, film clips of murky interiors and images of solitary angst.
Clive Robertson, Toronto-based performance artist, FUSE magazine editor, and leftist cultural dynamo, performed at the Treasure Cove Tavern, a tiny bar in downtown Dartmouth. Robertson rates as something of a major cultural; figure in Canada, a combination of leftist agitator, vanguard performance person, writer, and arts administrator. The contradictory nature of his polemical strategies, the simultaneous push toward and recoil from mass culture, the welding together of academic and pop concerns, and his marginal existence as a gadfly, makes Robertson (and artists like him) great fun to be around. He did nor try to gloss over the contradictory nature of his work at the Dartmouth performance. The working-class Treasure Cove was filled with art types that night: no regular patrons stayed on. The bartender seemed mystifies and threatened by the spectacle.
A Welfare vs Warfare theme ran throughout the work. An audio tape of a woman's voice was played as Robertson performed in a ritual. He had set up a series of brown paper bags on the floor. Each bag had a letter on it. Among other things, the letters spelled out the slogan "Welfare vs. Warfare" He crawled among the bags, occasionally knocking one over, while the audio tape described a litany of abuses and faults of Western society, from wife-battering to war in the Falklands. With great physical dexterity, Robertson was able to pour himself successive glasses of red wine as he crawled. The gesture made him at once a skid-row drunk and a soldier amidst barbed wire. The open-ended nature of the performance was striking, not something I had expected from Robertson. The audio tape seemed more congruent with my (exaggerated ) expectations. The woman's voice was relentless and perhaps violent in describing the atrocities of modern life. Many questions the artist's duplication of abuse in the audio attack on the audience.
Robertson's confrontational attitude had its opposing Audio by Artists component in John Murchie's Eye Level presentation. Murchie presented the work of Charles Ives, the early 20th Century avant-garde composer who sold insurance for a living. Murchie set up a stereo system and displayed Ives records and books. In a short introduction, he invited the audience to play what they liked. Murchie's piece had an attitude of aesthetic withdrawal about it, connecting with an artist like Louis Lawler and her habit of distributing invitations to concerts which claim that "Louis Lawler invites you to attend..."(a performance which she has had no part in producing.) Murchie was a go-between in a similar way, but I believe, without Lawler's cynicism. In Murchie's work, the piece was reduced to the elements of physical space, a group of recordings, a few books, and audience participation combined in a few pleasant hours on a rainy evening.
One problem defined the Contained Sound Sculpture portion of the festival. In one room at the Centre for Art Tapes, several artists gave in to a collective pressure not to noisily compete with each other. The result was a collection of whispering objects, or worked which used earphones to ensure a private experience of the work; there was much tape-flipping required. In the setting, Bruce Barber's piece worked well, as did a collaborative piece which used a reception desk as a platform, and a bed in a corner which gave out psychiatric advice.
Barber wired the entrance to the room. An audio tape played as the door opened. A menacing voice read the text of a United Technologies advertisement which was posted at the door ("Your true value to society comes when someone says "Let me see your work.'" Barber followed this deconstruction of advocacy advertising with a full-fledged show at Saint Mary's Art Gallery in Halifax.) The United Technologies Corporation makes various weapons systems, among other things. The ads attempt to obliquely justify the company's status as a merchant of death.
My only hesitation about the work, which is becoming a big project for Barber, is its lack of specific reference to Halifax's position as Canada's largest military base. To his credit, however, Barber does introduce an explosive issue in an explosive context (if you will pardon the pun), in work that persistently examines militarism in the context of a militaristic city.
Another forceful "contained sound sculpture" was put together by the group Babineau, Fairfield, MacDougall, Needham and Schueing. It was a secretary's desk wired with statistics and polemics perhaps summed up in the explicit use of 'secretary' as a metaphor for all women.
This fifth annual Audio by Artists Festival was capped by an event at Dalhousie University featuring The Palace at 4 a.m., which "is not a band". The palace is an art rock band from Toronto. The name, which is also the title of a famous Giacometti sculpture, is a clue to this group's precarious position at the point where multi-media art meets pop music., a point most successfully exploited by artists like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Surrealistic lyrics, synthesized rhythms, and a cool detached delivery reinforced, in my mind at least, similarities to Toronto-area performers like General Idea and (in recent videos) Rough Trade. The band orchestrated an urbane persona as carefully as it made music.
The Palace was an exciting band, and their Halifax performance was long overdue. Here, the audience was at least momentarily confused. We could not quickly decide whether the work called for polite applause or frenzied dancing. (That is always a good sign.)
An article on such a festival would not be complete without mentioning the important influence which Steven Tittle has had on the development of local music in Halifax over the last ten years. He teaches music at Dalhousie University. My difficulty in describing his performance ties in perfectly with the principle employed in his Murphy's Law performance group, which has been active in many forms for ten years. According to Murphy's Law, what can go wrong will go wrong: regrettably, I missed his piece.